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What’s broken about online dating?

I had previously written about game design through the MDA framework. I wanted to analyze something more deeply – online dating is something I think is super broken, so let’s look at it more closely.

Online dating is a maturing industry
The first fact about online dating is that it’s a maturing industry. It started out growing exponentially, but it’s now slowing down to single digit growth levels. It’s down to around 9% now, according to CNN. Ouch. That’s not what you want to see in an internet segment. I think that has to do with the limited zero-sum group that is really into “dating” sites, rather than social sites.

“Dating sites” primarily cater towards an older audience
Think about it: Bars are places for single people to hang out, and maybe you might meet someone there. Great, that’s appealing to everyone! But when you start talking about the crowd that goes to “singles mixers” and “speed dating,” you’re primarily talking about a much older crowd that’s looking to pair up. One issue here, obviously, is that as soon as you slap the “dating” label on something, you’re automatically appealing to people ready to settle down rather than to hang out with people casually.

What are the aesthetics desired for dating?
So, going back to the MDA framework, you should start at the question of, what are the feelings and emotions you’re trying to trigger when it comes to dating sites.

For the younger group, dating is about emotions that are fluttering, up and down, cat-and-mouse, etc. And after enough time, you like the person, you end up giving up pretenses and the shield drops. So a lot of the excitement of dating comes from the thrill of the chase, and then settling down into a real relationship.

For the older crowd, I’m guessing (since I’m not part of this group), that it’s much more around safety, life-long matches that are highly personalized, and making it a comfortable experience. This group still wants a little bit of the cat-and-mouse, but they don’t want to make it *too* exciting. I won’t address this group much since I can’t speak for the userbase.

What’s wrong with online dating?
If you guys have ever used a typical dating site, it seems like the aesthetics are completely broken. By paging through a huge group of profiles, and then clicking to message them, the feeling is much more “transacitonal” in nature. It feels like you’re buying a microwave from Walmart.com than it feels like a social experience.

It seems that “winking” and some in-between interactions are a good place to go to create emergent playfulness, which is where the thrill comes in. I love the fact that on Facebook, you can give an anonymous flower to someone. Or that on MySpace, you can send a message to a friend-of-a-friend asking about something random, and then the game of reading into the message can start.

Where’s a good place to start fixing the problem?
So starting with the aesthetics I named above, I think the dynamics you want to create are ultimately around playfulness, mixed messages, push-pull, and all the other great cat-and-mouse games.

Here are some random ideas I’ve just brainstormed out:

  • Remove the “dating” label from the site, but make it more about hanging out and being social.
  • Make a very long ladder of interactions for people, from winking to poking to giving gifts to asking questions to open ended messaging.
  • Give people an excuse to hang out OTHER than dating – be it casual games, chat, watching videos, etc.
  • Set them up for dating success, even if you’re not a dating site: Provide mixed gender balances in chat rooms, or group people by location and age, etc.

Ultimately, if you can get a gender balanced group of people who are all local to each other to talk and have fun, I think you’re going to find that a lot of them will automatically start dating.

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